photo illustration of Black hands playing a piano

Professor Birgitta Johnson connects music with culture, experience and emotion

The moment when music sparks an emotional connection for students makes it a great day in the classroom for music professor Birgitta Johnson.

“We get to have conversations and make connections about how music impacts our lives and how a very big part of it is beyond entertainment,” says Johnson, who is jointly appointed in the School of Music and the African American Studies Program. “Music gives us a lot as a human species, and it connects us in a lot of ways.”

She shares the story of one student whose interest in gospel music grew out of experiences he had with his grandmother.

“He would say, ‘My grandma loved that song,’ or ‘I remember when I saw that singer in concert with my grandma,” Johnson says. “You don't think you’re going to be sitting in class thinking about your grandma, but music can evoke nostalgia and memories that represent all aspects of the human experience.”

As a professor of ethnomusicology, Johnson studies the interaction of music and culture – why and how people make music and why it's important as a part of their identity or tradition. Much of her research is done in the field talking with and engaging with communities, including public events such as an upcoming music series she is hosting with the Columbia Museum of Art.

“More Than Rhythm: A Black Music Series” will explore the contributions of African American music to the American story and American music as a whole. The series will include performances and conversations facilitated by Johnson on genres from sacred and classical music to hip-hop.

“As opposed to attending a concert and then everyone goes home, these types of community activities offer an educational component as well as the opportunity for the audience to talk with the artist and engage in way that isn’t possible when attending a performance only,” Johnson says.


Encouraging all musical experiences

She has the same goals for her students, both music and non-music majors. Her classes reflect her emphasis on openness toward musical experiences. Topics range from the Cultural History of Hip-hop Music and a survey course on Beyonce’s “Lemonade” to Black Sacred Music, the roots of the blues and world music.

The hip-hop class is one of the more popular with students, and Johnson points out that hip-hop is now more than 40 years old and is the No. 1 pop genre exported out of America. As the School of Music’s associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion, she emphasizes the importance of illustrating to students how their backgrounds are represented not only in popular music but in music history and culture.

One of Johnson’s students attended his first concert, a performance by his favorite rapper, as a class assignment. “At first, he didn’t believe me when I said he could use that hip-hop concert for his report,” she says. “As long as he could talk about the musical concepts we covered in class with the Black musical aesthetic, that was totally acceptable.”

Johnson’s Black sacred music class in fall 2020 was all online, and she wasn’t sure if she could make it work. Because a lot of churches switched to online services, students were able to attend church and gospel events virtually for assignments and observe how places of worship modified their services and music.

Ariel Barker says Johnson helped deepen her appreciation for sacred music and African American contributions. Barker, a student from Advance, North Carolina, is pursuing a master’s degree in music with a concentration in voice performance.

“As an African American graduate student, I learned the value of my culture when it came to sacred church music,” she says. “We created such an influence for each generation, and I'm so appreciative that I am a part of it.”

As a non-music major, Honors College senior Hannah White says Johnson’s class also gave her a stronger appreciation for the history of gospel music and music created by Black people.

“This class allowed me to value my culture and the beauty and talent within the Black community. There was great dialogue from the class, and everyone seemed to feel very comfortable opening up and sharing from their experiences with music,” says White, a management and marketing major from Greenville, South Carolina.


Power of music to connect

Using music as a bridge to connect people and communities is one of the core themes of UofSC’s School of Music. The connection may be personal interactions in the classroom or community events such as Johnson’s upcoming “More Than Rhythm” series, the Mahogany Music Festival and last spring’s “Celebrating Local Heroes” concert series. This spring, “Together: A Celebration of the Asian and Pacific Islander Communities” will remember the anniversary of the March 2021 shootings in Atlanta that killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent. A memorial concert is planned on March 15 and a discussion with David Kim, concertmaster of The Philadelphia Orchestra, will take place on March 18.

This class allowed me to value my culture and the beauty and talent within the Black community. There was great dialogue from the class, and everyone seemed to feel very comfortable opening up and sharing from their experiences with music.

Hannah White, management and marketing major

Johnson says these types of opportunities give students a chance to experience musical activism and the power of music to bring people together, and in a practical sense, they also provide experience for students in planning events, figuring out logistics and developing connections before graduation.

“We want to make sure our students are the best prepared for the diverse opportunities in their profession,” Johnson says. “Through varied and unique study options such as expanding the jazz program with new faculty and facilities and our new music industry program, we are showing our music majors how broad their careers can be.”


More Than Rhythm: A Black Music Series

Hosted by Johnson, the two-year series will explore the popularity and influence of Black music and celebrate the ways music has historically brought us together. Through live musical performances and conversations, audiences will explore different subjects and genres. The first event features The Heritage Celebration Chorale, led by Tony McNeil. A podcast is planned to accompany the series.

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