PEOPLE: Course covers the Afro-Beat

Drs. Mathew Knowles and Joi Carr teach the "African American Aesthetic Culture From Spirituals to Hip Hop" course at Pepperdine University. Photos by Elyse Jankowski. 

Pepperdine’s ‘African American Aesthetic Culture From Spirituals to Hip Hop’ with Dr. Mathew Knowles and Dr. Joi Carr 

By Ben Marcus

When Millennials sneeringly tease Boomers just because they were born from 1946 to 1964, one sneers back: “You wish you were a child of the ’60s. You wish you were a teenager in the ’70s. You wish you were a 20-something in the ’80s. The soundtrack! Forgetaboutit!” Well up at Pepperdine, Dr. Mathew Knowles and Dr. Joi Carr don’t want this new generation to forget about all the great music of the past, and they are co-instructing a course called “African American Aesthetic Culture From Spirituals to Hip Hop.”

In my vast experience, the most musical people I have encountered are the Irish and Brazilians. Any opinion on that from either of you: Who are the most musical nation/people you have come across?

Dr. Mathew Knowles: It’s hard to definitively say which nation is the most musical, as music is a universal language that transcends borders and is present in every culture around the world. However, some countries are known for their rich musical traditions and contributions to the global music scene.

Countries like the United States, Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, India, and Ireland have all made significant impacts on various genres of music and have produced many world-renowned musicians. Each of these nations has a unique musical heritage and a deep connection to music that is ingrained in their cultural identity.

The United States, for example, has been at the forefront of popular music for many decades, with influential genres like gospel, country jazz, blues, rock, R&B, hip-hop and Afro-Beats originating there. Brazil is known for its vibrant music scene, including bossa nova, samba, and música popular brasileira. Cuba has a rich tradition of Afro-Cuban music, while Jamaica is famous for reggae and dancehall. Nigeria has taken the world by storm with its popular Afro-Beats.

Dr. Joi Carr: I agree with Dr. Knowles. Music is universal. It explores all the complex ways we experience the human condition. At this point in history there has been so much cross pollination. We know where certain sounds/styles come from originally, but most commercially successful music is a bit transnational in many respects. The unique contributions of African Americans from the United States and the countries Dr. Knowles mentioned have changed the sonic landscape around the world. 

“African American Aesthetic Culture From Spirituals to Hip Hop.” I know enough to know that is a juicy topic. You can cover all that in one Spring season?

Dr. Joi Carr: We wanted to create a class that traced the interdisciplinary nature of African American music all the way from chattel slavery to the present. The journey has been incredible: The history and social-cultural context alongside the music, literature, and film.

Dr. Mathew Knowles: First and foremost, we have very engaged students who want to learn our musical and cultural history. Some of the stories that have been told were not accurate. The way Dr. Carr and I have been effective in getting our students involved is by prioritizing the curriculum and identifying the key concepts and topics that must be covered to meet the learning objective of the course. A well-structured syllabus can help students and professors stay organized and on track.

My teaching style is one that I call “Edutainment” where I supplement some parts of my lectures with multimedia resources such as videos and simulations.

Yes, I try to write history that way: Educational and entertaining. Holding the attention of this fractured generation is tricky.

Dr. Mathew Knowles: Lastly, we have provided resources for self-study and encourage students to explore additional resources outside of class, such as textbooks and educational websites and we encourage students to share their feedback in class. “African American Aesthetic Culture From Spirituals to Hip Hop” is a combination of research from Dr. Carr and one of my published books, “The Emancipation of Slaves Through Music.”

Dr. Joi Carr: Yes, students read seminal works and listen to music extensively, from early recordings to the present day. We study the material chronologically and highlight significant moments, figures, and innovations in each time period. 

Sounds like a Ph.D version of the Music Appreciation classes the stoners took in high school in Santa Cruz in the 1970s. Taught by people who know what’s up. Is the music appreciated up there on the hill?

Dr. Joi Carr: That is humorous. I would not call the class exactly that. But Pepperdine has a strong Fine Arts Division that has introductory level courses for students to explore music. This class is unique and has a critical edge. It is a journey through the evolution of African American music, from spirituals to gospel, blues, country, jazz, and R&B through contemporary hip-hop. Students are wrestling with the music in the context of a rich intellectual history of Black thought. Students are excited about learning about each era and placing the music in context. Some of the songs they have heard before (in movies etc.), but not in this immersive and comprehensive way.

Where did the idea come from? Did you contact the school or vice versa?

Dr. Joi Carr: The class developed organically. Dr. Knowles just finished co-teaching a course at Pepperdine’s Graziadio Business School on entrepreneurship. We were connected by a colleague and after we explored our respective interests and expertise, the course was a natural outcome. Teaching a course with African American music at the center with Dr. Knowles, with his extensive background as an educator and groundbreaking work in the music industry as an executive, just made sense. This new course will help reinvigorate the African American Studies program at Seaver College. 

I have always wondered where inspiration for songs comes from. Beyonce for example: I know “Crazy in Love” funkifized a sample from the Chi Lites and spun it into gold. I wonder how “All the Single Ladies” evolved: What came first? So where did the inspiration for this class come from? Was it taught elsewhere and brought to the hills and dales of Pepperdine?

Dr. Mathew Knowles: The inspirations for songs can come from a variety of sources and experiences. Songwriters often draw inspiration from their own lives and emotions, using their personal experiences to create meaningful and authentic music. Relationships, both romantic and platonic, can be a common source of inspiration, as well as feelings of love, heartbreak, joy and sadness. Observing the world around them can spark ideas for lyrics and melodies, as can exploring different musical styles and genres as we’ve seen with Beyonce entering into the country music genre. 

Some artists find inspiration in social issues, politics, or personal beliefs, using music as a platform to share messages and provoke thought. Great examples are “Single Ladies,” “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “Survivor,” and “Run The World” were all female empowerment songs by Destiny’s Child, Solange, and Beyonce.

Dr. Joi Carr: I have been teaching some of this course content in another class called Music and Text. I explore American literature and music thematically. This music inspires me and it is exciting to teach it in the context of the culture and history. I let the era lead me to the song selections and literature for the course.

How has the response been? Pepperdine comes off as a serious-minded campus.

Dr. Mathew Knowles: The response has been overwhelming, both from student interest and media interest from the U.S. and internationally.

Dr. Joi Carr: The response has been wonderful. I have heard from colleagues, current students, and alumni. People have expressed appreciation for this new exciting course content. 

Where are the lectures given? How many people attend?

Dr. Joi Carr: The course is offered at Seaver in a multimedia classroom with an average class size of 16-18 students. We did not “advertise” the class with Dr. Knowles name attached to it. The course was posted in the schedule as usual without fanfare. We wanted students to migrate to the class naturally, for the course subject matter. It makes the teaching and learning process exciting. Plus, this material is incredible, life-affirming. We are having a great time teaching it together! 

I plan to propose the course as a permanent catalog offering to fulfill academic units for the African American Studies program and general studies. It will go through a faculty review process. I imagine “From Spirituals to Hip Hop” being offered in the course rotation with the other offerings in the program. Current students tell me almost every week how much they are enjoying the journey this semester. We are excited for them, what they are learning. Dr. Knowles and I are truly delighted about it. 

You might need a bigger room when this gets out.

Joi Carr: Absolutely. The course will be offered again. It is just a matter of time and logistics.