Justin Cober

Cross-Racial Covering and the Social Construction of Musical Meaning

I started this project with one basic question in mind: "What are the political implications of covering music by a performer from a different race?" Particularly, I was concerned with the implications of taking music from another traditions, re-shaping it, and making a new political statement to suit your own needs. Obviously, people have always been playing the music of another race in a variety of ways and for a myriad of reasons. Only some of these covers, however, have a noticeable social and political impact. As I began to weave through these complications, I realized a discrepancy between authorial intent and actual impact. In the end, social and political context along with listener response determines a song's politicality more than the composer or performer.

This issue first came to my attention with hip-hop artist Jay-Z's 1998 release of "Hard Knock Life." In this song, he samples the chorus from the musical Annie's song of the same title. My initial reading of this performance excited me. I saw a contemporary artist taking an idea from the white hegemonic past, and distorting it to fit his own views. Essentially, I saw Jay-Z's work suggesting that the original song represented nothing as harsh as modern life on the streets. While mainstream America was finding an entertaining pathos in the plight of a cute little orphan, Jay-Z, I assumed, was finding fluff. How could a little white girl (so white in the comic strips that she doesn't even have pupils) possibly know what are hard knock life is about? She's going to get her millionaire foster daddy and she's going to have a nice little life, while kids in the modern ghetto are facing even worse problems that are exacerbated by the color of their skin. In short, I saw Jay-Z saying, "Forget you, Annie [or worse]; here's what a real hard knock life is."

I looked for Jay-Z's scathing comments on the musical and found: "I watched the movie and was mesmerized... They're too strong to let life bring them down. That's the ghetto right there" (Orecklin 1998). In another interview, he says, "These kids sing about the hard knock life, things everyone in the ghetto feels coming up... That's the ghetto anthem" (Charles 1999). Jay-Z reacted to the musical in the polar opposite way from what I had expected. Rather than finding the show something that needed shook up and turned on its head to make a point, he found it to be something he could relate to. The anti-hegemonic response, I found, was simply my own (straight out of white, middle-class America). Where I had envisioned deconstruction, I found reinforcement. Jay-Z may be making a political and cultural statement with this song, but the statement cuts across racial lines, instead of through them.

An idea in literary theory called the "Intentional Fallacy" warns us against attributing a text's meaning to the intent of the author. The text, some critics would argue, should stand alone, and inquiries into it should be made entirely within its existence as a text. The author may have failed or succeeded in achieving his or her intention's, but either result does not matter. The meaning of the text itself is what matters (Wimsatt 1954). We don't need to understand Jay-Z's view of his work to understand the work itself. The situation remains unsettling. If I could read the song in that way, other people could as well. In Jay-Z's effort to promote a way of feeling and a tie to an unusual source, he could very well undermine the very source that he had responded to so positively. Interestingly, however, in my research I could find no work that concerned itself with the possible anti-Annie (anti-hegemonic) implications of "Hard Knock Life." Most record reviewers were quick to point out the sampling, but did not argue for any discursive political effects.

Still, these implications exist in popular music. A common act of defiance in various means of expression is turning the language of the hegemonic group against itself to make a statement. For example, the words "bad," "fat/phat," and--most recently--"pimp," have developed positive connotations. The word "nigger/nigga" can be used within the African-American community as a proud signification and as a rejection of an oppressive language imposed on a cultural group. However, a difficulty remains in sorting through the meaning of songs that play with traditional musical or verbal language. Where does the political meaning of a song arise?

John Coltrane serves as a prime example for this analysis. He was decidedly anti-political in interviews, and rarely took a hard-line public stance. He saw himself as a musician, and recognized possible spiritual and redemptive qualities in music, but did not intend to speak out on political issues. During his career, he covered many songs previously done by white performers, such as "My Favorite Things," simply because he liked the songs, but listeners took other approaches to his work. By the latter part of his life--and especially after his death--some audiences were receiving his music in extremely politicized ways.

When he chose in 1960 to cover Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things," John Coltrane took a Broadway showtune and played it in a radically different style. He incorporates Eastern musical techniques and modal playing styles. He also plays the soprano saxophone, which at that time was rarely played in jazz. The actual sound of the song, then, changes dramatically. Live performances, especially, completely overturn the original version of this song.1

This dramatic change creates the potential for revolutionary comment. As one scholar notes about discursive exchange, "Any elision, truncation or convergence of prevailing linguistic and ideological categories can have profoundly disorienting effects. These deviations briefly expose the arbitrary nature of the codes which underlie and shape all forms of discourse" (Hebdige 91). Playing with structural codes is a taboo act, because it disrupts typical thinking and causes general disorientation. To break through or alter these structural codes shakes the stability of a system, and removes any naturalizing effect continual adherence to these codes may have produced. Coltrane, in "My Favorite Things," certainly exposes the unnaturalness of musical coding and traditional Western structures. He forces the convergence of various forms of music, and he breaks from tradition in a variety of ways. His playing on this song is indicative of a new style of jazz forming at this time, and popularized by players like John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman. The song itself maintains a strong statement in the world of music.

However, Coltrane affects traditional coding even further by covering a song by a white composer and white performers. He doesn't just create a unique musical sound; he turns around the structural make-up of an already well-known and well-liked mainstream song. The act suggests at some level an inherent flaw or lack in the original version. Coltrane begins a musical dialogue with the world of Broadway. Fundamental arguments concerning what constitutes "good" or "proper" music begin to form. These arguments, importantly, center around racial constructions of music and cultural origins of form and style. Coltrane's cross-racial covering opens up the possibility for a variety of political statements.

When Coltrane covered this song, however, he did so because liked the song and the melody. He does not take an antagonistic approach to the Broadway tune. In fact he once said, "I would have loved to have written it" (Porter 1998). Coltrane, we can see, was not trying to make a political statement, or trying to comment on race relations or hegemonic forms of music. Simply, he was taking what he thought was a nice song, and playing it in his own style. He refuses to make any kind of racial distinction when it comes to music. He said, "I don't know the criteria capable of differentiating between a white musician from a black musician, and besides, I don't believe that it exists" (Porter 1998).2 Coltrane was not attempting to draw a distinction along racial lines in his music. Instead, he was simply expressing himself in an experimental fashion.

However, Coltrane realized that his music could have implications on the larger society. He explained, "I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people" (Porter 1998). While he wasn't ostensibly making a political statement with "My Favorite Things," Coltrane was well aware of the possibilities of his music. He doesn't use structuralist terminology, but he points out the possible outcomes of disrupting musical codes: people may react socially to what they hear.

People did react to Coltrane's music very strongly and very politically. In particular, black nationalist poets used Coltrane's work as inspiration. Coltrane never associated himself directly with the Civil Rights Movement, but many African-American poets took his work "as the musical embodiment of black nationalism in the United States" (Feinstein). These poets did not respond to what Coltrane was literally saying in his interviews; they were responding to what he was playing in his music. The new coding, the changing sounds, and the expressive playing pointed the way to new societal thought. One scholar explains that black intellectuals of the time were intrigued by jazz due to its spontaneity (again, think of live versions of "My Favorite Things"). To these intellectuals, "spontaneity meant liberation, transcendence, and a revolt against white commercialism" (Early 1999). A simple cover of a pretty song can be translated into a call to arms.

These intellectuals responded to Coltrane's music in a variety of ways. First, writers found the music a fundamental establishment of the race-based condition. Amiri Baraka writes that artists like Coltrane "have continued to tell us the second, minute, hour, day, month, year and epoch of our reality" (Baraka 1987). The music, devoid of words describes the condition of a group of people. A contemporary critic says that Coltrane's music has an essential racial aspect: "his music could explicitly evoke and render something racial in its sound" (Early). In his poem "More Trane Than Art" Baraka expresses this feeling, claiming that rhythms are life and memory (Baraka 1987). He goes on to say:

the vibrating material self
enthralled by its life in reflection of it and all of what life
expresses (Baraka 85).

The music, first, was a statement of a politicized Blackness.

Many African-American poets like Baraka and Larry Neal used his music as inspiration for their explicitly political poetry. Neal, for example finds extreme anger and a call to activism in the music, writing, "accept nothing less than the death / of your enemies" (Feinstein). This poetry sorts for dramatic resistance against hegemonic oppression. Baraka takes the music even further. In his poem "I Love Music," he writes "my favorite things / like sonny / can be... / capitalism dying" (Baraka 1987). Here Baraka attributes a marxist commentary to Coltrane's "My Favorite Things." Coltrane, of course, is not commenting on capitalism; he is playing the saxophone. Throughout his work, Baraka imposes his own ideology onto Coltrane's music (Early 1999). The jazz performer is not ostensibly interested in doing the same things as the poet. However, if people see his music as a deconstruction of contemporary America, that is the meaning the music takes on, regardless of what Coltrane intended.

Poets responded to the music in one other way: they structured their poems in the same ways that Coltrane structured his songs, often beginning with a simple melody and bursting into a fiery solo (Feinstein 1996). Interestingly, though, the most exciting moments--and the ones most dramatically responded to--are not clearly structured. The poets, then, could not exactly imitate the structure (the way they could, for example, with a blues song with an AAB pattern). The merely imitated the feel of the songs, trying to incorporate jazz's pacing and flow into their language. Baraka explains that poetry must be musical to evoke sound and be as powerful as possible, to be "High Speech." He continues: "Black poetry, in the main, from its premise... means to show its musical origins and resolve as a given" (Baraka 1987). The sound and rhythm to a poem is vital. Many of these poets even incorporate imitations of saxophone sounds such as "SCREEE" into their poetry to create the feel of the music. To black nationalist poets (and others) Coltrane's compositions served as a formal paradigm for powerful, effective communication.

If it is true, as I want to argue, that a song's social context has a dramatic influence on its meaning, it would appear odd that such political and militant interpretations would arise out of the jazz scene. Jazz had traditionally been a focal point of anti-segregationist activities. In this musical scene, white and black performers frequently played together and interacted even during times when the rest of society would not generally accept such behavior. In the late 1940s into the 1950s, the bebop scene (in which Coltrane played) was particularly integrationist. Although mostly African-American artists played bebop, bands frequently included white musicians. Some scholars consider this inclusion a deliberate attempt to keep jazz unsegregated (Deveaux 1997). People in this setting were not trying to make a distinct racial statement; instead, they were supporting racial harmony. As trumpeter Clark Terry said, "A note don't care who plays it--whether you're black, white, green, brown, or opaque" (Deveaux 1997). Furthermore, jazz--especially avant-garde music like John Coltrane's--was popular among white audiences. If anything, one would expect this music not to be used by black nationalists.

By the end of the 1950s, though, society was changing, as the Civil Rights Movement was fully underway. One scholar writes, "The coincidence of a growing market for black music and culture among white youth, and the increased media coverage of civil rights demonstrations, created a uniquely bicultural, or at least biculturally receptive, generation of young whites" (McMichael 1998). People of different races began to respond to the new jazz forms in a political context. While Coltrane and other artists attracted largely white audiences with their avant-garde or free jazz, national writing by black jazz critics came to prominence. These two factors "politicized blackness for white listeners of jazz" (McMichael 1998). Jazz became further entangled in a racial dialogue.

This entanglement had been developing for sometime. Intellectuals had already begun to consider bebop in terms of revolution. Baraka said, "BeBop was a staging area for a new sensibility growing to maturity.... [The BeBoppers were] making change, opening a door, cutting underbrush and heavy vines away to make a path" (Deveaux 1997). Baraka could see the roots of revolution in the newness and the energy of bebop. When the new styles of jazz developed towards the end of the 1950s, society was at just a certain point for people to take these new, chaotic sounds as expressive of the world and the civil rights struggle. The new sound corresponded to urges people were expressing at that time, and people absorbed that sound into their experience. Baraka explains that the very nature of new African-American form of music is subversive. He writes that "just the fact of [oppressed people's] being creators of such influential and profound a cultural resource as jazz would tend to reorient large numbers of people intellectually and politically by attacking black national stereotypes" (Baraka 1987). The newness of the music, and the scene of its source contributes to the political implications its listeners can hear in it.

Later music, too, served to ensnare this music into the political web. For example, John Coltrane recorded "Alabama" in response to the September 15, 1963, bombing of a Birmingham church in which four African-American girls were killed. In his song, he used the "rhythms in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s eulogy for the girls" (Feinstein 1996). Although he had remained politically invisible before, he now linked his name and work to a dramatic moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Even if he was just expressing his personal emotion, he created music that would necessarily be taken in a political way. Someone hearing "Alabama" in 1963 could easily imagine political connotations going back through Coltrane's music, with "My Favorite Things" being a wonderful example. With the world and the music changing, listeners in the 1960s couldn't hear jazz artists as they used to. Now they were compelled to consider "racial subjectivity (of self and other, white and black)" (McMichael 1998). The complex of innovative music and a politically charged world influenced the interpretive readings of the jazz audience.

Cutting-edge or avant-garde movements, however, quickly become absorbed into what is considered art, and lose their revolutionary aspects (Deveaux 1997). The new codes created with progressive expressions develop into a standard part of the musical canon. Each successive hearing produces a less shocking, and less defiant, reading. As musicians continue to work with innovative techniques and original sounds, the new music develops into a standard. Experiencing John Coltrane for the first time in 1960 produces a drastically different effect from hearing him in 2000. The drama and surprise of the sound is gone, and is provocative points are dulled. While researching this topic, I played "My Favorite Things" at a dinner party for people with varying degrees of musical background. The strongest response the music received was, "Hey, he's playing that song." Even as I insisted on Coltrane's original statements, I could not coax anything more than, "But it's still basically the same song." I find it hard to place Amiri Baraka in this setting.

The political power was lost in the moment because the societal context has so radically changed in the last forty years. A song that was once on the musical edge of possibilities in a world rife with racial divisiveness has become just a spruced up version of an old classic. This change has two causes. First, musically, this song does not seem so crazily out there. Even people who aren't jazz aficionados have likely heard songs (maybe Coltrane's later works) that sound more jarring, disorienting, and bold. Most of us, too, have heard enough African-Americans covering mainstream white songs in very different versions (especially in hip-hop) not to be surprised at the sound, or to even think about political implications. Removed its musical context, "My Favorite Things" is less stunning. Secondly, society has changed. Obviously we still face struggles against racism and new forms of segregation, but it is not a daily drama. The likes of Bull Connor rarely grace the evening news in our times. Our political consciousness has been tamed by our lack of engaging our world with marches, sit-ins, or demonstrations. I suspect, though, that dedicated activists might still hear "My Favorite Things" with a political perspective, given their personal context.

This idea of the dulling of the cutting edge returns us to Jay-Z and "Hard Knock Life." After 20 years or so of hip-hop, we expect artists to do the sorts of things Jay-Z does on this track. Talking about ghetto life is nothing new or shocking. We can go back at least to 1982 to hear the topic taken up, in "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Furthermore, African-American hip-hop artists have used mainstream white music for so long, that this usage has become part of the coding of rap music. When Jay-Z performs "Hard Knock Life," he may entertain or inform us, but he does not disorient us and call our standard thinking into doubt.

We can see this transition in hip-hop at the micro-level but thinking about the career of Public Enemy. Their 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and their 1990 record Fear of a Black Planet provided listeners with a provocative political experience (as the group intended). The public reacted with a mixture of shock, dismay, and disgust, and the band was caught in controversy. This controversy stemmed from several causes. First, their explicitly political lyrics pushed the limits of what was acceptable. They didn't attack white music by reinventing its codes, they just called it out in songs like "Fight the Power":

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him... (Fear)

The lyrics deliberately start a debate. Moreover, though, they operate in a specific social context. Their single "Fight the Power" appeared in Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing, which itself provoked political discussion. They also call out the context they need to spark political thought. They dress like Black Panthers, and their "lyrics turn on a reprise of 1960s black power and Afrocentrism" (Santoro 1990). They (re)create the social context necessary for the reception they seek. Furthermore, the play with traditional musical codes, including those in hip-hop. They sample a variety of sources to create "the most formidable wall of sound ever heard in rap," which helps suggest the music of John Coltrane (Berman 1993). They provide a new sound that, by disrupting expectations, forces a closer examination. Through their innovations, Public Enemy created a musical form and social context capable of sparking political dialogue.

Eight years later (roughly the same time as Jay-Z's release of "Hard Knock Life"), Public Enemy again produced an overtly political record, the soundtrack to Spike Lee's He Got Game. The work presented typical Public Enemy rage and bombast against society, specifically capitalism and the exploitation of college athletes. The group also features music by white artists Buffalo Springfield and the Who. However, the work sparked none of the earlier controversy. The commentary I could find on this album points to its political nature, but does not make an issue over it. By 1998, people were expecting the sound and the lyrics that they got. Moreover, Stephen Stills appeared on the album, and the by-now traditional codes of sampling do not imply that Public Enemy had anything more to say about Pete Townshend's "Won't Get Fooled Again" than that it could apply in a different setting. This album, although as angry and political as their earlier work, was received as a standard (high-quality, maybe, but normative) hip-hop album. The societal and musical context of this release (and Jay-Z's) did not easily provide for a political reception.

However, one objection still remains. If societal and musical contexts have the greatest influence on the interpretive meaning of a song, why would I read "Hard Knock Life" in the manner that I did? Interestingly, when I look back, I remember that I first noticed the song while taking a class on the Civil Rights Movement. At approximately the same time, I was involved in a staging a rally to protest a hate group that was coming to speaking in my college's town. I was also first opening up to the musical and lyrical potentials of hip-hop. I had previously listened to very little rap, and listening to it (as opposed to just hearing it) broke down ideas I had previously held about musical coding, including the roles of rhythm and the legitimacy of sampling someone else's work. Although the general musical and social contexts of the period did not suggest a dramatic politicality to Jay-Z's work, my personal situation did.

Finally, we can see the removal of authorial intent from the final meaning of a song. We can also recognize that covering music created by a member of a different racial group has no inherent political implications. Social context, musical positionality, and listener response determine a song's political meanings. We see this idea evidenced in the work of both John Coltrane and Jay-Z who had some artistic similarities, but were received in radically different fashions. The politically charged atmosphere of the 1960s invited extreme interpretation, but contemporary society inhibits it. A complex dynamic allows for the creation of different possible meanings for musical works, whether they be free jazz compositions, or modern rap stylings.


1See for example, The World According to John Coltrane.

2This comment originally appeared in Clouzet, Jean, and Michel Delorme. "Entretien avec John Coltrane." Les Cahiers du Jazz 8 (1963): 1-14. Porter translated it for his work.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri (LeRoi Jones), and Amina Baraka. The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987.

Berman, Marshall. "Close to the Edge: Reflections on Rap." Tikkun 8.2 (1993): 13-22.

Charles, Nick, and Cynthia Wang. "Street Singer: Jay-Z Makes the Switch from Hustler to Rap Star Look E-Z." People Weekly 51.12 (1999):161+.

Deveaux, Scott. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Early, Gerald. "Ode to John Coltrane: A Jazz Musician's Influence on African-American Culture." The Antioch Review 57 (1999).

Feinstein, Sascha. "From 'Alabama' to 'A Love Supreme': The Evolution of the John Coltrane Poem." The Southern Review 32 (1996): 315-327.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1979.

McMichael, Robert K. "'We Insist-Freedom Now!': Black Moral Authority, Jazz, and the Changeable Shape of Whiteness." American Music 16 (1998).

Orecklin, Michele. "Next Up: Big Daddy Warbucks." Time 152.16 (1998): 129.

Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Public Enemy. Fear of a Black Planet. Uni/Def Jam, 1990.

Santoro, Gene. "Public Enemy." The Nation. 250.25 (1990): 902-6.*

Wimsatt, W.K., Jr., and Monroe L. Beardsley. "The Intentional Fallacy." The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. University of Kentucky Press, 1954.

The World According to John Coltrane. Pro. Toby Byron, Richard Saylor. BMG Video, 1993.

Other Sound Recordings
Coltrane, John. "My Favorite Things." My Favorite Things. Atlantic, 1961. Jay-Z. Vol. 2, Hard Knock Life. Uni/Def Jam, 1998. Public Enemy. He Got Game. Uni/Def Jam, 1998. _____. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Uni/Def Jam, 1988.