MUS 113 Final Project: What If?

The final project for Fall 2020 was inspired by Black Panther and the late Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020).

One of the most powerful and moving aspects of Black Panther is that its fierce Afrofuturism allows us to reimagine the African past. What if other African nations had had a resource like Wakanda’s vibranium? What if Wakanda had shared its resources instead of being isolationist and self-protective? What if an African nation had had a powerful weapon against European colonizers? How would the history of the continent and its peoples have been different?

Final Project 2020: What If?

For your final project, you will be imagining an alternate history, and making a document about its impact on Black music. If history was different, how would the music be different?

Some examples of alternate history:

  • The recent YA novel Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland, is about the derailment of the Civil War by zombies. Black girls like heroine Jane McKeene go to special combat academies to learn to be zombie fighters.
  • The song “The Deep,” by Daveed Diggs’s rap group clipping, is about an undersea civilization populated by the descendants of African women thrown overboard during the Middle Passage, who learned to breathe underwater.
  • The Amazon Prime show The Man in the High Castle, set in an alternate 1960s America, envisions what might have happened if the Axis powers (Germany and Japan) had won World War II.

In the show, Japan controls the Pacific states, and the Greater Nazi Reich controls the Eastern half of America. The Rocky Mountains are a Neutral Zone.

In the alternative historical universe of High Castle, since the Axis powers won World War II, there was no Civil Rights movement. Blacks went straight from Jim Crow to extermination in concentration camps throughout the South. A few escaped to the Japanese Pacific States, where they are discriminated against but not killed outright. An armed force called the Black Communist Rebellion is working secretly to overthrow the Japanese colonial government and establish a Black homeland in the West. The BCR leader is Bell Mallory (played by Frances Turner), who was forcibly sterilized in an American Nazi concentration camp at the age of 13, escaped to the Neutral Zone, and later made her way to Oakland. Oakland, as you will know by the end of this course, has a significant place in the history of Black culture.

Frances Turner as Bell Mallory.

A former prisoner of the Black Communist Rebellion explains the group to the Japanese police chief at the very moment the BCR is staging a successful act of sabotage in the San Francisco Bay.

In S4 E2, Bell attends a clandestine house party/revolutionary meeting in Oakland, where she hears an LP of Thelonius Monk playing “Well, You Needn’t.”

“What is this man doing to that piano?” she asks in amazement. Her companion, Elijah, explains that Thelonius Monk recorded the album in the Neutral Zone, after which copies were smuggled out. He also shows her a cache of forbidden Black literature and music, including Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and a Louis Armstrong record.

The alternate universe of High Castle includes artifacts from our own history — for instance, Thelonius Monk’s 1951 album The Genius of Modern Music — but they exist in different contexts, and have different histories. Instead of being recorded in Blue Note’s studio in New York City in 1947, Monk’s album was recorded in secret in the Neutral Zone, and his music, and the physical record itself, are both powerful forbidden symbols of the Resistance.

WASHINGTON—Declaring the armored lighter-than-air sky fortress a testament to African American achievement across parallel realities, the Smithsonian Museum celebrated Black Alternate History Month Monday with a full-scale recreation of The B.S.S. Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois’ war zeppelin. “Looking at this afro-futurist combat dirigible evokes images of W.E.B. Du Bois, resplendent in his cybernetic eye patch and brass-trimmed top hat, bending his formidable will and intellect to drop hundreds of tons of dynamite on segregationist camps from the helm of the Crisis,” said head researcher Lawrence Brumly, who unveiled the airship in its new home alongside several other artifacts including a walk-through interior model of the hoverbus which Robo Parks refused to ride atop; Sally Jefferson-Hemmings bloodstained, steam-powered battle dress; and the schematics of George Washington Carver’s peanut-based fission bomb, which allowed the United States of Black America to bring the Civil War to an end. “We are incredibly lucky to be able to display relics from the dream-realization chamber of Dr. MechaLuther King to the original manuscripts of Pope Malcolm X. And allowing visitors to interact with, for instance, the piano played by President Ray Charles on The Arsenio Hall Show really allows them to have a sense of the rich alternate history of black Americans.” In the next year, the Smithsonian has planned exhibits allowing museum visitors to experience firsthand the difference advanced African American technology has made in this country since arriving in the portal from Mars.

  • Check out the Today in Alternate History blog, which posts news stories about such “historical” events such as the averting of World War I through diplomatic talks and the wedding of Barack Obama to Dorothy Bush, one of the daughters of George H.W. Bush.
Your assignment:
  1. Imagine a what-if scenario for Black music history.

Your scenario can be social, political, or personal.

For instance:

  • What if George Washington had freed the slaves?
  • What if there had been a successful slave rebellion in the U.S. Colonies or early United States?
  • What if the promised reparations for slavery — “40 acres and a mule” — had been fulfilled after the Civil War? How would the Black economy have developed?
  • What if interracial marriage had been legal prior to 1967?
  • Etc. The possibilities are endless.

2. What are the effects of your alternate history on Black music?

  • We know that American music of the African diaspora has always reflected, responded to, and helped shape human events on social, historical, and personal levels.
  • Based on your “what if” scenario, how would the history of Black music in America have turned out differently?
  • Would there be different songs, different texts, different genres, different artists, different sounds, different samples?
  • Would Black music be concerned with different narrative themes?
  • What would it sound like?
  • Would the reception of Black music by the white mainstream have been different? How?
  • Would there even be such a thing as “Black music”?

3. Create an alternate-historical document that shows/tells how Black music would have been different.

Your historical document can take many forms. Some possibilities:

  • An album cover, front and back (including artists, song lists, cover art, and notes)
  • A poster advertising a show or concert
  • A review of a show or concert
  • A letter, journal, or diary entry from a historical personage
  • A wedding, birth, or death certificate
  • The architectural plans for a concert or cultural space
  • A concert program
  • A newspaper article
  • A Twitter thread
  • Instagram captions
  • A graphic timeline
  • A painting, drawing, or photograph
  • Costume designs for a show or opera
  • Original beats, samples, or songs
  • An original poem or dialogue
  • A music video (3-4 minutes)
  • A documentary video (5-6 minutes)
  • A podcast (5-6 minutes: include your voice, musical excerpts and sound effects)
  • Regardless of the media, method, or platform you use, you must include a bibliography/list of sources you consulted.

4. Timeline for this assignment

  • Start thinking about your alternative history scenario as soon as possible. This is a big assignment and it cannot be crammed!
  • Submit a written first draft of your idea/plans to me by Oct. 8 at 11:59 PM. This draft should include:
    – A narrative of the alternate-historical event
    – How this event would have affected Black music
    – A draft plan for your document
    Email it me at oconnelljr@sunybroome.edu.
  • I will make suggested revisions and return it to you.
  • Submit a revised draft of your idea/plans to me by Nov. 5 at 11:59 PM.
  • Submit a first draft of your actual document to me by Nov. 26 at 11:59 PM.
  • I will make suggested revisions.
  • Submit the final version of your actual document on Dec. 17 at 11:59 PM.
Keep in mind: your document must demonstrate that you understand actual Black history, so that you can make a convincing case for how it might have been different! In other words, this is as much work as a research paper!

Grading rubric for final project: