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Sounds from the Other Side: Popular Music and Gender

February 7, 2020

Elliot Powell stands in front of a mural of Prince.

Elliot Powell stands in front of a mural of Prince.
Photo by Gavin Schuster, Backpack student

American studies Professor Elliott Powell began his exploration of music as an elementary schooler when he researched a music legend for a Black History Month project. “I went to the library and read up on Duke Ellington—as much as you could as a seven-year-old—and I was just really fascinated by him and his work and everything that people have written about him,” says Powell. His interest in the famous American jazz artist prompted him to pursue his own musical training through piano lessons.

Powell studied history in college, and his continued interest in music led him to take a class on the social and cultural analysis of music. The class reshaped his thinking, and a paper that he wrote was the starting point for his dissertation and forthcoming book, Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborative Sounds in Black Popular Music.

The Other Side of Popular Music

Powell studies the cultural and political implications of music through the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. His most recent project focuses on combinations of South Asian music and Black popular music from the 1960s to the present. His project is essentially a genealogy of music that incorporated South Asian sounds. He looks at songs by American jazz artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane as well as modern hip-hop artists like Timbaland and Missy Elliott.

Powell looks for how gender and sexuality dynamics are expressed within these musical collaborations. He examines the gender and sexuality of the artists and consumers and how they operate both within the music and in the broader political, cultural, and societal context. His training in feminist theory and queer theory informs how he examines issues like the representation of LGBTQ people or how gender and sexuality influence where the music gets played and who listens to it. Ultimately, through interviews, archival research, and music analysis, Powell’s book illustrates how people like Miles Davis and Missy Elliott worked with South Asian artists and culture in ways that help listeners imagine a world of cross-racial solidarity and transformative LGBTQ politics.

Powell does not see his research as asking whether gender and sexuality play a role in the life of these collaborations. Instead, he wants to describe exactly how those factors impact the music. He believes these effects are key to understanding the larger meaning of all music. “Even if it's not intentional, the kind of context in which music gets released and produced is very much embedded and tied and entwined with the social, the cultural, and the political,” Powell explains.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

In his research, Powell uses methods such as personal interviews, close reading, musical analysis, and archival research. Interdisciplinary research is integral to how he explores the interactions of cultural dynamics and music. 

“American studies understands that the world is incredibly complex, and therefore cannot actually be approached through one particular tool,” says Powell. American studies supports interdisciplinary research in a way that is not limited to a few traditional methodologies. Researchers within the department can explore everything from popular music to food to oceans, and they are all tied together by the understanding that these topics have social, cultural, and political importance.

Powell’s research on Black popular artists, Asian American music, and gender and sexuality benefits greatly from the interdisciplinary nature of the American Studies department. Powell is also affiliated with both the Asian American Studies Program and the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies department. His dedication to these disciplines gives his research a fullness that helps us to see the music in a different light. 

The interdisciplinary tools of American studies make the application of its research interdisciplinary as well. For example, Powell says that because his research draws from multiple fields, it can be presented at a variety of different conferences and symposiums. All of his projects have the potential to be incredibly valuable in many departments and highly visible because of their wide reach. Powell’s research further informs the fields of American history, and music through a queer, black cultural studies lens, and has been presented at conferences centered around fields like social justice.

Teaching to Learn

Powell’s other research projects follow the theme of identifying the social, cultural, and political aspects of popular music. One of his upcoming projects is about music and sex culture in Minneapolis during the 1980s. This research specifically looks at local music legend Prince. The research is inspired by a class that he teaches called Prince, Porn and Public Space. Powell explains that his research and teaching are closely related. 

“For me, I can't separate them. They’re always going to be in conversation [with each other], and they help me understand new things,” he says. Powell learns from the materials that he assigns in classes, and he tries to teach in a way that he would have wanted as a student. Powell wants his students to realize that there are infinite ways to listen to music. Much like in his research, Powell wants to encourage others to understand the complex meaning that music carries so that they can hear it in a new way.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.