Can culture and politics be separated?

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.
Clay P. Bedford

I teach two classes of 8th grade band, and my colleague teaches a third.  We coordinate our lessons and the repertoire that the students are working on so that it comes together well for the concerts, and that they are learning the same concepts.  We recently passed out new music that we selected for the Spring concert, which we tried to make diverse and international.  Selections from movies, history, and other continents are going to piece together the program.

One of the pieces that we selected was a wonderful composition that is a tribute to Ugandan folk music.  We had rehearsed it for a few days when my colleague read about Uganda’s new law against homosexuals.  When the law was first proposed several years ago, it was going to declare the death sentence on anyone discovered to be homosexual.  The law that actually passed a few weeks ago changed the death penalty to life in prison.  Additionally, if a person is caught hiding their knowledge of a person who is homosexual, they will receive the same sentence.  We had a long discussion about whether or not we should play this piece due to the connotation and reception that it could possibly receive from the friends and families of our students (if they are staying up-to-date on the news).  Between the two of us, we were not able to come to a clean conclusion, so we went a different route.  We asked our students.

First, the issue was presented as bad things that the government in Uganda was doing, without specifics about the new law.  Then, we discussed whether or not the culture and music of a society could be thought of as separate from its politics.  Could we play the music as a celebration of their society?  Or was that impossible?  Then, we went into the details of the law.  We emphasized that we were not interested in each student’s opinion on homosexuality (the community that we teach in is fairly conservative), but hoped that they still do not agree that a government should commit an act of such aggression towards its people.

After our discussions, it was beginning to be clear that the students were not interested in playing the piece any longer.  One student eloquently stated that it would not possible to separate the politics from the culture, because all that we digest from our news is what we learn and perceive about the globe.  A mature, intelligent response.

I said that we were going to look for another piece from Africa.  A student responded, half-jokingly, that no matter what, we would still find something in the news that could warrant the same issues.  At first, I was not impressed by that comment.  However, I can now see some opportunity.  If this event made some students more sensitive to the current events that surround the music that they perform, then they have gone far in their maturity as musicians and people.  Even many professional musicians do not take such an interest in current events, probably because their concern is with an accurate and successful performance.   Students in school, on the other hand, seem to be wanting to find how the music they perform (or all the material that they learn in all subjects, for that matter) relate to and enhance their lives in some way.  I do not think that students are taught to be curious, but “come that way.”  Just as in my classroom, I do not believe that anyone lacks a sense of rhythm or a sense of pitch.

I was thrilled to have had our discussion, and to see that curiosity and musicality are alive and well, and are the two states of mind that will probably end up saving the world.

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Masked LGBT supporters at a protest against Uganda’s anti-gay law. Source.