From the moment you meet Dr. Birgitta Johnson you can feel her calming presence. She creates and nurtures an environment in her classroom that fosters critical thinking.
Eleven years ago, she was hired by the University of South Carolina to be a jointly appointed professor of ethnomusicology in the School of Music (SoM) and African American Studies (AFAM) Program. She has paved the way for inclusivity at the School of Music and is the associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). When she isn’t inspiring students, she gives back to the community by hosting More Than Rhythm: A Black Music Series at the Columbia Museum of Art.
For Black History Month we sat down with her to discuss being a Black music specialist, connecting students to their culture/heritage and DEI at the School of Music.
Q: When you were hired, there were no other Black female faculty members at the School of Music. What were some of the challenges of being the only and possibly the first Black female faculty member working at the School of Music?
Dr. Johnson: As a joint appointed faculty member in two units, the School of Music and the College of Arts and Sciences, I didn’t have a lot of time to focus on being the first Black female tenure track faculty person in Music. Eleven years ago, I was school’s first joint appointed faculty and so I was paving new ground with my appointment as well as being an ethnomusicologist. The biggest challenge was finding out what each unit needed from me as a Black music specialist and then trying to deliver that in my teaching. The School of Music and African American Studies wanted someone who could offer diverse music topics, but what that would look like and how that would fit for each one of the places was part of the challenge. I knew because of the nature of my job search the School of Music was looking for an ethnomusicologist who could teach world music and popular music courses and the African American Studies program did not have any trained music scholars on staff at that time. Joining both areas was very welcoming because I was providing a research profile and coursework that they knew they wanted for their students.
I didn't really have some of the extreme struggles that my Black and Brown female colleagues were having at other institutions working in overtly hostile environments. Many of my colleagues here were genuinely excited to have me here and expanding what USC could offer students and the campus community.
Q: How did it feel being the only Black woman faculty person at the School of Music? Did you feel isolated, intimidated or discouraged?
Dr. Johnson: I have a funny story about that. I didn't realize I was the only full-time Black faculty member until the first faculty meeting in the fall. It didn't register to me until we had everyone together. All the new people would stand up and introduce themselves. When I stood up in the recital hall, I was like, “Wow. There are no other Black people in this room.” It was funny to me that it took me that long to notice it, but it wasn't a big deal from what I could tell. When I was being hired people were so excited about my hiring and about what I could bring. The intimidation and isolation certain people feel in these situations, I didn’t have. My mother integrated her high school back in 1966, so I understood what that experience could be like. It just was not my experience in this case. There were faculty who were very welcoming, and I had great peer review committee led by Julie Hubbert checking to make sure things were going well for me. I know that doesn't happen for everybody in other places, even on this campus but I was very encouraged by the reception. As a new tenure track person, I didn't have time to get intimidated. You have to come in and do the job because you have got to prove yourself, really, when you hit the ground.
Dr. Johnson grew up playing in all-Black orchestras in the Atlanta Public School (APS) System and the Metro Atlanta area. When the APS orchestras would play in competitions, her school’s orchestra would be one of the few Black orchestras there. Her orchestra teacher, Audrey Reese, made sure they knew they were there because of their talent and skill but would have to be better than the other schools. These experiences and others informed her professional career as a scholar years later.
Q: As an ethnomusicologist who specializes in Black music traditions, how do your classes help connect Black students to their cultural heritage?
Dr. Johnson: We can't take for granted or assume that these courses are being offered everywhere. Most students are not expecting to come to a university and learn about Black music and Black history. Oftentimes they're surprised that they can come and learn about the cultural history of hip hop, African music, Beyonce and other Black women in popular music.
Even coming out of high school, a lot of young people don’t get exposed to deep roots and cultural history of Black music. People may talk about hip hop songs, but not about the history, where they come from and the connections to older traditions. A lot of times students of all races are surprised that you could have a class on these topics.
For Black students, in particular, it’s about being affirmed and being able to see their culture represented in class on the college level. A lot of them like it and feel a sense of pride because they see someone studying and talking about their musical heritage in a professional way. It's not just surface level, it's deep. In classes we make connections to Black religion, Black faith traditions, protest and connections to Africa and the African Diaspora.
A lot of African American musical history comes from or comes through South Carolina. I'm able to talk about Gullah Geechee heritage. There are students we have here who are still dealing with the fact that in a lot of spaces, Gullah Geechee heritage is still shamed. They are excited to tell their parents we talked about Gullah Geechee music or the ring shout. In class, student see these connections not only to Black culture, but also to American culture. It is a way of presenting a cultural heritage that is beyond what we see in popular culture or popular media, which tends to be very negative, narrow or surface level. They can also explore and talk about and look at various artists and various scholars who talk about this music. Then they see there's a whole world of people interested in the cultural heritage of African peoples and that really makes it interesting, fun, but relevant to their own experiences.
Q: When looking over your eleven-years teaching at USC, how have socio-political shifts and events such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the #MeToo movement impacted your teaching and classes?
Dr. Johnson: My teaching echoed what was already going on. These are not new movements. These are not new things to happen in American society. A lot of my teaching gave meaning, connection and context to what younger people were seeing on the news and as it was happening.
Dr: Johnson: I told my students that this is the beginning of something. This is not going to stop right here. Trayvon Martin had been killed and the person who had done it had been acquitted and then the Michael Brown murder happened. I remember being conscious to this being similar to what we've seen before in American history, but that it is going to be different. This is not going to end right now. I said this is going to be longer than this moment. It's not going to be forgotten or swept under the rug. Now we have social media to compete with twenty-four-hour news. I draw comparisons from the Civil Rights movement, what music does in those movements and how it encourages people. We see the same thing happening today with popular artists making music, communities making their own protest music and responding with music and the arts to protest and as a part of protest strategies. A lot of my coursework covers the history of these musical responses to oppression. When these things happen in the news it basically becomes a contemporary version of what we've seen in American culture from previous generations.
Q: How would you explain the importance of DEI to universities, businesses and organizations that have predominantly white staff?
Dr. Johnson: I will say that the time is not only now, the time has passed for undervaluing DEI. You must have more diversity. Diversity helps propel the whole organization. In the case of businesses, diversity is more profitable. Diversity gives you more ideas, it gives you more innovation. The most innovations we've seen in all the fields have come from when those fields have diversified the people who pour their talents into collective efforts.
We saw it in the America space program, featured in the film Hidden Figures. You had a whole room of Black women who were there, working as human computers back and doing the calculations to get the United States to the moon. If they were not allowed to work there, we probably would have never made it, made it safely or it would have taken longer. We've seen in all areas and aspects of life, business, science, culture—when you are more inclusive and more diverse, you have more creativity. It's not just output, but a range of expressions.
The more voices at the table, the more buy in you get. In the case of businesses or organizations, it has been proven that more diversity helps in the long run. Staying the same and with only white or male faces in the room, limits you. You're less competitive and not as mobile because you have the same ideas from people from almost the same background.
You're not going to be competitive in the future if you're not diverse and striving for equity—regardless of what's happening with the political climate right now. The people who have been most diverse, the countries that are more welcoming to diversity, tend to survive and weather a lot of things or they’re able to bring each other through a lot of things as opposed to tearing each other down. You see better environments, better morale, when you have more diversity, as opposed to having lopsided representation, or people not feeling like they have an equitable stake in the place or organization.
Q: Do you think diversity and inclusion at the School of Music has reached its full potential? If not, how do you think the School of Music can improve in diversifying their staff?
Dr. Johnson: I would say no, but we are well on our way. When I started, I was the only full-time Black faculty person. Now there are four at the School of Music. We have more female faculty, Jewish faculty and Asian faculty. There has been an increase of faculty from other parts of the world. The numbers are all kind of growing gradually. We have more ways to go as far as faculty in certain areas and with student representation. We do have peaks and valleys where we have an increase in certain groups and then it goes down and comes back up again. We do have a ways to go, but I think we're working towards that. I feel that a lot of people in the School of Music support this. They're trying to find ways to get and recruit students, as well as recruit faculty and staff that represent diversity in all forms. There is consciousness around trying to make this happen and figure out how we can encourage this to happen.
Q: From your experiences, what are you hoping to model for Black students at USC?
Dr. Johnson: I'm from Atlanta. I'm from an urban environment, an international city and a historically black city. How I move in the world has been informed by those spaces and that context of aspiration, community pride and forward movement. When I think about what representation means for Black students in South Carolina, where you oftentimes or very rarely come into a classroom, and see a Black person teaching you anything, regardless of it being Black music, that is something where students can say, “Wow, someone looks like me, and they're doing this!?!?” They see someone who looks like them, who has advanced degrees and is also in a dean position---it’s about seeing the possibility of what could be. They get to see someone being true themselves and representing the culture well. A lot of times young people and particularly people of color are used to seeing people contort and modify themselves to get advancement and fit into white spaces. I unapologetically show up as my full self and they get to see why being your true self is important and the healthiest way to success. When they see someone who can stand up, have thoughtful conversations, be engaged and make you think — that's a way to model what could be possible for them in their futures.