Austin Okigbo, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music

Visiting Assistant Professor Austin Okigbo specializes in church music, music in the African, African American, and African Diaspora religious experience, and music as a part of the experience of HIV/AIDS. He is currently leading a two-week trip with the college Chamber Choir to South Africa for its biennial international tour.

What is ethnomusicology and how did you first become interested in it?

Ethnomusicology has been defined in various ways according to the varying trends of the discipline. But what is central to the discipline is that it is the study of music in culture, or you might say that it is the cultural study of music. Because of the nature of the evolution of the discipline, the central object of its study is the music cultures of non-Western traditions, although Western popular music has finally become a big part of the disciplinary gaze. Of late, however, ethnomusicologists have also begun to study Western classical music as a cultural product.

That brings me then to my interest in the discipline of ethnomusicology. I went to Westminster Choir College first, where I obtained a Master of Music in Sacred Music and Music Education with performance tracks in vocal performance and choral conducting. It was while taking classes in musicology and critical pedagogy that I discovered ethnomusicology as a discipline; it provided me an opportunity to pursue a scholarly study of African and Black World Music that the conservatory system could not afford me. In other words, my interest was driven by a desire to study African and Black world music at a time when I felt that I had been over-immersed in the Western classical tradition.

Your work focuses on music in the HIV/AIDS experience. How do you feel that these are connected? How do you hope that your work can affect the ongoing battle against the proliferation of AIDS?

People often wonder how music is connected with the problem of the global AIDS pandemic. But we have to bear in mind that music is the most important art form in which people articulate their life experiences, including their experience of diseases, sickness, and death. Hence, it is natural that people would respond to a modern disease of great magnitude such as HIV/AIDS with music.

In my study of musical responses to HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and therefore music and the global politics of AIDS, I investigate how music is used to articulate some of the unspoken political issues (e.g. race, gender, poverty, and the North-South socio-economic disparities) that becloud the HIV/AIDS discourses. My research looks beyond the use of music as culturally-based intervention protocols for behavioral change—an idea that has become a dominant motif in ethnographic studies of music and public health performance. Instead, I look at how music is being used by both activists and those who live the actual experience of being HIV/AIDS positive, to articulate as well as to engage the sociocultural and political processes that impact our experience of the disease.

My approach is based on the assumption that HIV/AIDS is the most politicized public health issue of our time on both national and international levels. The politics have an impact on the conceptual frameworks with which we understand health, such as race, ethnicity, and gender and sexuality, thereby also generating varied levels of cultural productions (e.g. music) in response to their experience of the disease. I therefore seek to understand how these frameworks are being constructed and the ways in which artists and music groups of diverse backgrounds, traditions and genres have utilized music to articulate the experience of HIV/AIDS in their local communities and on the global scene, as well as add their voices to or against public policies, cultural behaviors, and social attitudes that impact the fight against HIV/AIDS.

My research reveals that these historical realities do filter into public and private conversations about the state of public health in South Africa in general and HIV/AIDS in particular. It means that people’s experience of HIV/AIDS is linked to their sociocultural and political experiences, thereby constituting the lens through which the disease is viewed and interpreted. When these issues find expression in music, the art form therefore provides insights useful to understanding the social and cultural realities of AIDS either in South Africa or the length and breadth of the continent and beyond, leading to more meaningful ways of engaging the disease.

What kinds of work have you done abroad in Africa? What fresh perspective do you hope you bring to Williams music students?

First of all, I am originally from Nigeria, where I taught music in high school a few years, as well as worked in the State Council for Arts and Culture, before moving to the United States. This preceded my full-fledged ethnographic study of religious music and music in the public health sector in South Africa. My other interest is music and inter-religious dialogue in West Africa. So my study of the music and cultures of the continent of Africa is charged with a unique sensibility, sense of ownership, and lived experience. This is the perspective that I bring to Williams, in addition to the integrative, interdisciplinary, and constructivist approach to the study of music, which dovetails perfectly into Williams’s academic culture.

Why do you think that it’s important for students to learn about the music of other cultures, especially of African cultures, which probably seem remote to most Americans?

No part of the global community and culture is that remote. No! Not at least in the 21st century. Africa can never be the forgotten continent no matter how much some people want to forget her. Africa permeates the life of the rest of the world, particularly in North America, more than we realize. The continent will continue to be a whip on the conscience of the world, particularly of the West, until it has emerged from much of its present problems, which are rooted (at least partially–to be conservative about it) in slave trade and colonialism. The more we get entangled in the knots of global affairs, the more it behooves us to become more globally conscious. And no other generation has more responsibility to appreciate the dynamics of globalization in all its ramifications than the present generation. This is where a liberal arts education in a noble institution such as Williams becomes beneficial, particularly in her effort to encourage a diversity of people and perspectives with the aim of producing eloquent young minds who can think clearly and critically, can critically evaluate both their own and others’ ideas, and are prepared to use their knowledge to serve the common good in the world.