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Songs About Identity And Belonging Essays

At some point in our lives, we have all heard phrases like, "Find your true voice," "Sing your own song," or "Dance to the rhythm of your own drum." There is also a good chance these words have come from people who care about us and who want to help us find our way in the world with a deep sense of personal wellbeing, confidence and happiness.

Could it be, though, that these musical metaphors have deeper truths within them? Maybe it is not only what we find in music that enriches our lives; rather what music helps us discover within ourselves. Can music, like a good teacher or a close friend, help us discover things about ourselves that we might not otherwise recognize? Does music actually help us form a vision of who we are as children and who we will become in the world?

According to Sobonfu Somé, of the West African country Burkina Faso, there is a tribe in Africa in which music lies at the very essence of an individual's identity -- both to him/herself and to the community around them [1]. When a woman there decides she wants to have a child, she goes off and meditates until she hears the song of the child she will conceive. She then teaches that song to the father-to-be and, together, they share the song as they make love. Once pregnant, they teach the song to their community to sing as the mother is giving birth, welcoming the child in to the world with its own song. Later in life, if the child ever goes astray, the community sings the song to help the child remember who he/she really is, as a guide to a deeper connection of inner or higher self. When a couple is married, they sing their songs and, finally, when it comes time for a member of the tribe to transition from this life, the village sings their song for them.

In addition to being a great story, this is the ultimate metaphor for the powerful impact music can have on helping us discover and create our own identity as we are growing up. Although the practices of Western society are not as formalized in guiding us through this process as the tribe in Africa, most of us can recall pieces of music that have helped us feel more connected in a disconnected and often unjust world. As youth, we often chose our circles of friends by the kind of music that most resonated with us and sometimes came to idolize - maybe even imitate - the artists who created that music.

Over the past couple years, the University of Glasgow and the Scottish Music and Health Network have been performing studies in order to bring a clearer understanding to just how influential music can be in helping children develop their sense of identity. Their research on music and identity has confirmed something to which most of us can already testify by simply reflecting on our own adolescent experience: the music we identify with during our early teens often becomes the music that stays with us throughout our life. This creates a strong nostalgia in later years, re-connecting us back to our sense of self and to the community of friends -- new and old -- who share those musical preferences.

Music can support and enrich the development of a positive self-identity as well as provide confidence, motivation and a sense of belonging. Music can enhance creative, social and emotional skills. Music can be both a sense of self-preservation and fundamental wellbeing [2], providing a source of support when youth feel stressed, troubled or lonely [3]. Adolescents even hold expectations about the values and characteristics of fans of certain kinds of musical styles, attributing a kind of label for themselves and others around musical preferences [4]. Participation in musical groups or performances can further contribute to building friendships, self-esteem and social skills.

I may not have been given a melody by my mother as I came into this world, but it didn't take me long to find songs to call my own. From my earliest memories, I was either choosing the music of my older brothers to build a bond, or finding my own to show my independence. I still recall the deep impressions of songs like the Beatles' "Let It Be", Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On", Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" as I was struggling to make sense of my early teenage years. I can still revel in them and the almost visceral sense of connection when I hear them today.

I believe it is important that we give our children exposure to a wide range of music so they can build their own preferences and identities. A broader musical palette can open them up to a wider range of life experience and larger sphere of friendships and associations. Helping them to recognize how they can use, or even create, the music they come to love, to resonate more deeply with their own spirit and the world around them, provides them with a tremendously powerful tool for facing challenges in life, communicating their emotions and reconnecting when the world around them feels too overwhelming or disconnected.

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[1] Some, S. (1999) Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community. New World Library.

[2] Hallam, S., & Creech, A. (Eds.) (2010) Music education in the 21st century in the United Kingdom: Achievements, analysis and aspirations. London: Institute of Education.

[3] Zillman, D. & Gan, S.L. (1997) Musical taste in adolescence. In: The social psychology of music, ed. D. J. Hargreaves & A. C. North, pp. 161-87. Oxford University Press.

[4] North, A.C. and Hargreaves, D.J. (1999) 'Music and Adolescent Identity', Music Education Research 1: 75-92.

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Songs serve to unify groups of people and to move them to common action or help them express common emotions. Certain songs become “anthems” for particular generations, as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1962) became for many in the 1960s. In times of national crisis certain songs seem especially appropriate, such as “God Bless America,” or even John Lennon’s “Imagine” (1971). They express widely-shared values or experiences and emotions that help define a group’s identity and solidarity.

Songs, singers, and genres also help people construct self-images and provide models for how to behave. Pop stars–from Jenny Lind in the nineteenth century to Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Britney Spears in the twentieth century–set styles and shape their fans’ attitudes. They do this, moreover, in several ways. One is by how the singer represents him or herself: Lind’s charitable contributions, Bing’s pipe, Elvis’ ducktail haircut, and Britney’s bare midriff. Genres such as punk rock or bebop provided fans with styles of dress, slang, and non-conformist identities.

Song lyrics also express judgments—and even conflicts—about lifestyles, values, and appearances. In the early 1970s, for example, Neil Young released two songs expressing anti-southern opinions: “Southern Man” (1970) and “Alabama” (1972). A few years later a southern rock band, Lynard Skynard, responded with a defense of the South entitled “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974), containing the lines “I hope Neil Young will remember a southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.” Finally, music can express attitudes and values by how it sounds. Various popular forms like rock ‘n roll, and, beginning in the 1970s, such forms as punk, heavy metal, and rap, sounded defiant, like an assault on the ears, as well as the values, of older generations.

Historians sometimes consider songs as more or less straightforward “reflections” of the society and culture in which they were produced. These songs are then used to illustrate what historians already think they know about that society and culture. Thus, an anti-drinking song like “Come Home Father” (1864) might be interpreted to mean that nineteenth-century Americans were concerned about alcohol and opposed to its abuse. On one level, this view of music makes sense: a musical work is a product and a part of the society and culture from which it emerges. But such a view is also highly simplistic. For one thing, it ignores the fact that songs exist in relation to other popular texts, including other songs. “Come Home Father," for example, inspired a sequel by another composer, "Father Don’t Drink any Now!” (1866) and both were part of the same musical universe as songs that treated drinking lightly, like “Pop, Pop, Pop. A Comic Song” (1868).

The assumption that songs merely reflect their times also ignores the fact that songs are almost always open to multiple interpretations. For example, in the 1960s “Puff the Magic Dragon” (1963) was widely associated with marijuana and its effects. Yet the lyricist, Leonard Lipton, claimed that the song was about loss of childhood innocence. Evidently this interpretation prevailed because by the 1970s it had become standard repertory at nursery schools and children’s sing-alongs. The richness of using songs as sources for understanding history—and the need to delve deeply into the available evidence when doing so—lies in their openness to such multiple uses and interpretations.

The fact that multiple uses and interpretations exist, however, points to another important aspect of music: it serves as a forum for public debate about manners, morals, politics, and social change. Musicians and their audiences are social actors; while they reflect the world around them, they also interpret and change it. For every anti-Vietnam War song like “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” (1967) there were pro-war (or anti-anti-war) songs like “Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966). In cases like this, songs are most valuable for telling us what concerned people, how they saw issues, and how they expressed their hopes, ideals, anger, and frustrations.

Many historians have used song lyrics to help understand the culture and consciousness of the people who sang and listened to them. Especially when considering people who left few written accounts of their lives, song lyrics can give important clues about what people thought and felt, their daily struggles, and their dreams about the future. Read the following lyrics. What information do they provide about the lives of the people who created them? What stories can you tell about the singers based upon the lyrics?

In 1855, former slave Frederick Douglass related hearing the following song improvised by southern slaves:

We raise de wheat, dey gib us de corn;
We bake de bread, dey gib us de cruss;
We sif’ de meal, dey gib us de huss;
We peal de meat, dey gib us de skin;
And dat’s de way dey takes us in.
We skims de pot, dey gib us de liquor,
An’ say, “Dat’s good enough fer a nigger.”

Can you use the song as evidence for: