Music Identity Crisis in the Americas

In Douglas Shadle’s Orchestrating the Nation, he opens up the discussion on unpacking what the national musical identity of the United States actually is. He argues along with multiple perspectives that the definition of the US musical identity changes through time. He makes a point to include a perspective stating that when talking about minority groups in the United States such as “other American residents–indigenous peoples and those of African heritage, for example–also played little role in these discussions until the end of the century, and only then primarily as objects under discussion, not participating subjects within it” <6> (Shadle, 8). Even today, this furthers the question, “were they American at all” (8)?

This gets us into the conversation of what is considered “American music”. In the nineteenth century some would say that folk songs were considered just that, “cultivated” music, as long as it was imbued with a national or folk “character” (Shadle, 6). Could this count as “true” American musical style? The concept of nationalism plays a huge role and question whether Aaron Copland or Charles Ives created an “ideal American sound” (7). Bernd Sponheuer, a German musicologist, argued that “national identity is not “an empirically demonstrable musical trait derived from style criticism.” Rather, it is constructed” (8). Critic Virgil Thomson addressed such concerns “that to write American music, one must simply be American and “then write any kind of music you wish” (8).

The topic of immigrant musicians specifically from Europe are said to have made a large impact on the music in America, but what of the many other immigrant groups that inhabit America today? Are they only considered American if they are named citizens of the United States of America or does the number of years of living in America mean nothing, even if they have been living here for practically their entire lives? Does the color of their skin erase their entire identity? Shadle reminds us, “should they assimilate into the culture of the English-speaking ruling class (8)?”

Cepeda ‘s book dives into the impact that talented Columbian artists such as “Shakira, Andrea Echeverri of Aterciopelados, and Carlos Vives” have had in the United States, Latin America, and its national identity, then “Cepeda argues that music is a powerful arbitrator of memory and transnational identity” <1>(Cepeda). Harrison’s article discusses the revelation of “how an evocation of place functions in the practice of religious life within commercial southern (white) gospel music and fundamentalist Protestantism” <2>(Harrison).

Meanwhile, Hess’s perspective on the “Latin American opinion on Copland’s cultural diplomacy” challenges the US perspective” <3>(Hess) going into the crisis of modernism in Argentina and Copland’s vision of Latin American music which is “one rooted in essentialism and folkloric nationalism and which ultimately prevailed in the United States throughout the late twentieth century” (Hess)<3>. A different perspective is seen through the Brazilian lens on the “music and cartoons in Brazil : complementarity in the representation of national identity” (l’Hoeste)<4>. Lastly, Knights is a melting pot for the different places in Americas and around the world fusion of music for national identity and its critiques (Knights)<5>. All encompassing I want to leave you with a full circle moment with Shandle’s reminder that “listeners constructed the nation from the inside out” (Shadle, 9).

  1. Cepeda, Maria. Musical ImagiNation: U.S-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom. NYU Press, 2010. <1>
  2. Harrison, Douglas. “From Arkansas with Love: Evangelical Crisis Management and Southern (White) Gospel Music.” Southern Spaces, 2014, np–np.<2>
  3. Hess, Carol A. “Copland in Argentina: Pan Americanist Politics, Folklore, and the Crisis in Modern Music.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 66, no. 1 (2013): 191–250.<3>
  4. l’Hoeste, Hector D. Fernandez, Pablo Vila, and Hector D. Fernandez l’Hoeste. Sound, Image, and National Imaginary in the Construction of Latin/o American Identities. Edited by Hector D. Fernandez l’Hoeste and Pablo Vila. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018.<4>
  5. Knights, Vanessa. Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Global and the Local. 1st ed. United Kingdom: Routledge, 2016.<5>
  6. Shadle, Douglas. 2015. Orchestrating the Nation. Oxford University Press.<6>

Activism: A Rant on Music, Minstrelsy, New Orleans, and Today’s Racism

“Minstrelsy is thing of the past!” my old high school teacher once told me. Is it actually a thing of the past? Just because it is no longer featured and accepted in mainstream media it does not mean that the racism in the United States has ended. It has only evolved. We still hear remnants of this racist entertainment culture in sing-along songs that have been played to many children growing up. There are still references made to minstrelsy through the use of costumes in cartoons such as Mickey Mouse. Have African-Americans, or minorities in general, ever been put first when it comes to economic and emergency aid from the United States government or population? If so, why did Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King, Jr. ever have to step on that soapbox to put minorities first themselves?

Martin Luther King. Jr. Quote

Is it a cultural norm for the United States to be considered a nation that puts their people last? Unlike the Swiss and Germans, who have helped their people in times of need, New Orleans says a lot about the reality of the United States and the government’s attitude towards affirmative action aimed at minorities, specifically African Americans.

“While Swiss and German governments have paid reparations to Holocaust survivors and those killed in the Holocaust, black intellectuals have pointed out that there has been no such concentrated effort by the United States to repay African Americans for the unpaid labor required under slavery” (The American Mosaic: The African American Experience).

Looters make their way into and out of a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005. Flood waters continue to rise in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina did extensive damage when it made landfall on Monday. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people and changed the lives over millions of others. One of the cities most affected by this hurricane was New Orleans, LA. The majority of the people affected by this disaster were African-Americans. According to, the 75.8% of the New Orleans population is Black, 18.9% is White, and 5.3% is Hispanic.

New Orleans, LA Population Bar Chart of Ethnicity

“The problems that plague the urban poor, who are disproportionately African American, were tangible throughout Louisiana—especially in New Orleans, which sustained the most damage—and in Mississippi near where the storm made landfall. The catastrophic storm only amplified ways the black urban and rural poor in the American South had been ignored” (The American Mosaic: The African American Experience).

It is clear that a disproportionate amount of African-Americans in this part of the South were left without sufficient aid by the US Government emergency systems. According to the article about “New Leadership,” Sanders states that there are many African American intellectuals today drawing on evolving conversations about black identity to “reignite a debate on the need for reparations to African Americans” (Sanders). This debate is similar to that of minstrelsy in the context of African American reparations. What can the United States offer to African Americans as reparations in a post-slavery world? Does the United States do enough for African Americans today? This question is complicated because we must define “United States”. The United States as in: government, citizens, immigrants, and companies. There are many different ways the United States can act as an entity.

The Black Law in Missouri, 1861

Minstrelsy poses the same concerns because it requires reparations in its own context. The question posed with regard to minstrelsy is, “Should minstrel songs and culture be erased from history or should we educate our following generations on its history?” For lack of a better way to state this, I will say it as it is: The United States as a whole is not doing everything it can do to owe reparations to African Americans today.



  1. Sanders, Joshunda. “New Leadership, 2001–2008.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 7, 2018.
  2. The Black Law in Missouri. The National Era (Washington D. C., United States), Thursday, January 26, 1860; pg. 15; Issue 682 (224 words (1860/01/26/):
  4. Simpson, George. “Disney race shock: Mickey Mouse ‘was based on blackface minstrels’.” February 3, 2017. Accessed March 7, 2018.