Uncovering the Hidden Politics of Music

Portrait of Abby Yates.
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

Not only is Abby Yates double-majoring in American studies and history, but she’s doing so in just three years. 

It’s one of many feats Yates has accomplished during her undergraduate career. Her combined experiences of learning abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, her two majors, and the support from her instructors have led her to formulate her final senior project.

A Diverse Area of Study 

In spring 2018, Yates took HIST 3882: US in the World with Scott McDowell, a PhD student, where she created an independent research paper. Yates decided to explore American jazz ambassadors in the 1950s and 60's as a form of music diplomacy. “I thought it was interesting that the United States would send African American musicians abroad to foreign countries on the brink of communism to try to sway them toward pro-American ideologies when there was a ton of racial tension and the civil rights movement going on at home,” Yates says. “It’s interesting to see that music diplomacy is really political.”

McDowell inspired Yates to further explore music ambassadors for her senior project. “He teaches us to ask deeper questions and connect themes, which is important when teaching and keeping materials like US foreign policy interesting,” she explains. The course counted toward both her majors. “I feel very prepared for my future,” she says. “Since I want to be a k-12 social studies teacher, I think I’ve been very prepared by my diverse courses and professors.”

An Eye-opening Experience 

In summer 2018, Yates seized the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa through the School for International Training (SIT). Unlike most learning abroad programs, hers was part internship, part study. For five weeks, she interned with Gold Youth Development Agency, a non-profit focused on youth development and promoting the use of peer education to combat risky behaviors in schools throughout South Africa. Once a week, Yates attended a class where different community activists talked about their personal activism and connected the work of prominent activists during apartheid to the efforts of activists in Cape Town today.

As a white American studying in Cape Town, Yates was forced to think a lot about her positionality and privilege within different spaces. For example, she realized how similar the United States and South Africa are in terms of their history with racism, state-sanctioned segregation, and oppression. She believes that it's easy for her to overlook certain privileges that she has. Studying in a place where race and discrimination were visibly and institutionally present prompted her to reevaluate her own identity and incorporate her new perspectives on politics and society into her senior project. “I’m grateful to have gone to Cape Town because my experience there has taught me to change how I look at the world here. If I had gone to a program where I stayed at a hotel, didn’t have class, went to a party every night and was immersed in the white Cape Town culture, I wouldn't have had the same enriching and challenging experience that I had," she explains. 

Putting it all Together 

Yates is now working on her senior project under the direction of Professor Brenda Child. Her project was inspired by both her earlier research on jazz musicians and a specific experience during her time abroad; seeing the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus perform while on an outing in Langa, a township of Cape Town. She felt “weird sitting in that room watching a white American singing group perform 'Africa' by Toto.” After seeing that performance, she became increasingly curious about the motives of white musicians from the west traveling to other countries to spread music. Yates' is now studying the Minnesota Orchestra, which recently toured South Africa as part of a worldwide celebration in honor of Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday.

Current Affairs

Aside from working on her senior project, Yates spends her time volunteering at the Cedar-Riverside Adult Education Cooperative as an English as a second language classroom assistant. She also works as a Gopher Chauffeur and is a community engagement intern with the Minnesota Literacy Council. As for where she’s going next, Yates plans on pursuing a masters in education and her teaching license so she can become a secondary-level social studies teacher. 

With graduation right around the corner, Yates says that she is ready to take on the future because of the enriching curriculum within the American studies and history majors, great support from professors in her departments, and her life-changing learning abroad experience. She believes that having a liberal arts education provides opportunities that prepare you for the future and “gives you a good toolbox to go out to the world and be a good human.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student content creator in CLAgency. Meet the team.

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