MUS 113 Final Project Spring 2023: What If?

R.I.P. Chadwick Boseman

One of the most powerful aspects of the Black Panther franchise is its fierce Afrofuturism, which 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 really had a powerful weapon against European colonizers? How would the history of the continent and its peoples have been different?

If African history had been different, how would this have affected the musical and cultural production of Black Americans?

Final Project: What If?

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

Some examples of alternative history:

  • The 2018 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 train as zombie fighters.
  • The song “The Deep,” by Daveed Diggs’s rap group clipping, is about an fictional undersea civilization populated by the descendants of African women thrown overboard during the Transatlantic slave trade, 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 so-called Pacific States, and the Greater Nazi Reich controls the Eastern half of the Americas. 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 legal segregation under Jim Crow, to extermination in concentration camps throughout the American South. A few escaped to the Japanese Pacific States, where they are discriminated against, but not killed outright. A revolutionary group called the Black Communist Rebellion is working secretly to overthrow the Japanese colonial government and establish a Black homeland in western part of the former United States. The Black Communist Rebellion is based in Oakland, which has a significant place in the history of actual, non-alternative Black culture.

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

In S4 E2, a member of the group 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.

In this alternate universe, Thelonius Monk has recorded his 1951 album The Genius of Modern Music not in Blue Note’s studio in New York City, but in secret in the Neutral Zone, and his music has been smuggled out. Artifacts from our own, real history exist in this alternate reality — in the apartment you also see works of Black literature and music like W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk and a Louis Armstrong record — but they have a different meaning, as powerful symbols of a secret Black American history that is suppressed under the fascist powers.

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.

  • 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 history.

Your scenario can be social, political, personal, or supernatural.

For instance:

  • What if George Washington had freed the slaves?
  • What if there had been a successful slave revolt in the American colonies or the 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 fully legal prior to 1967 (Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia)?
  • What if the nations of the western coast of Africa had superior weapons to those of the Spanish, Portuguese, British and other European slave traders?
  • What if Sally Hemings had been the official First Lady of the United States in the first decade of the 19th century?
  • What if the people really could fly?

The possibilities are endless.

2. Map out an original narrative for the ways this alternate history might have affected 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 instruments, different dances, different fashions, different artists, different sounds, different samples?
  • Would Black music be concerned with different narrative, social, psychological, and lyrical themes?
  • What would it sound like?
  • What social movements would it reflect and/or inspire?
  • How would it be received by the Black public?
  • How would it be received by the white mainstream? Would there even BE a white mainstream?
  • 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.

I use the word “document” broadly. Your historical document can take almost any form. 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
  • An alternative instrument or technology
  • A costume or outfit worn by an artist in your alternative reality
  • A photo or photo series
  • A letter, journal, or diary entry from or to 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, sculpture or installation
  • A poem
  • 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 (5-7 minutes: include your voice, musical excerpts and sound effects)
  • Regardless of the medium, 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.
  • February 9, 2 PM: Class meets in the library for a special session on doing research for your projects.
  • March 16, 11:59 PM: Submit a written first draft of your idea/plans to me. This is your midterm assignment.

    Your draft should include:

    – A narrative of the alternate-historical event

    – How this event would have affected Black music

    – A draft plan for your “document”

    – A draft bibliography of sources you have consulted/are consulting in Chicago style

    Email your midterm draft to me at oconnelljr@sunybroome.edu.
  • I will make suggested revisions and return it to you.
  • March 30, 11:59 PM: Submit a revised draft of your idea/plans to me based on my suggestions.
  • April 20, 11:59 PM: Submit a first draft of your document to me. Attach a written description of the document and its meaning/significance.
  • I will make suggested revisions.
  • May 11, 11:59 PM: Submit the final version of your actual document.
  • May 16, 2 PM: Present your document to the class.
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:

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